An Overview of the U.S. Legal System

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Chapter 2

An Overview of the U.S. Legal System
The law must be stable, but it must not stand still. —Roscoe Pound

The United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC, welcomes visitors to tour the building and observe the Court in session. As a public place the terrace of the Court is a frequent site of demonstrations.

© Bill Ross/CORBIS

978-0-495-83114-3, Constitutional Law and the Criminal Justice System, 4e, J. Scott Harr and Kären M. Hess - © Cengage Learning


Section I A Foundation for Understanding Constitutional Law

Do You Know . . .
a a a a a a a a a a a a a a

What two prominent theories about the underlying purpose of law are? What the basic purpose of the American legal system is? What the scales of justice symbolize in law? When common law began, what it is based on and what it is synonymous with? What stare decisis requires? How the Constitution ensures individual liberty? Why American law is said to be a living law? Where statutory law originates? The difference between a crime and a tort? What two main functions are served by courts? On what two levels the judicial system operates? Who officers of the court are? What doctrines govern whether a case will be heard in court? What the three components of the criminal justice system are? The juvenile justice system? What the main similarity and difference between the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system are?


Can You Define?
adversarial judicial system amicus briefs appellate jurisdiction case law codified law common law comparative law concurrent jurisdiction conflict theory consensus theory crimes exclusive jurisdiction general jurisdiction jurisdiction limited jurisdiction mootness ordinances original jurisdiction penal codes petition for certiorari procedural law promulgate ripeness doctrine social contract standing stare decisis status offenses statutory law substantive law tort venue

This chapter describes the American legal system and how it operates. Through understanding how it operates comes an appreciation of the crucial role the U.S. Constitution plays in achieving the primary goals of the framers of the Constitution—liberty, freedom and fairness. You will also learn the term that embodies these concepts and assures they will remain: due process. When examining the overall legal system, you may find it, like the Constitution itself, to be overwhelming and complex. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. You learn about something as intimidating as the American legal system one concept at a time. Start with understanding the basic purpose of the legal system. Once you understand the Why’s, the What’s will become more logical. 978-0-495-83114-3, Constitutional Law and the Criminal Justice System, 4e, J. Scott Harr and Kären M. Hess - © Cengage Learning

Chapter 2 An Overview of the U.S. Legal System


The chapter begins with a discussion of the purpose of the U.S. legal system and a description of law and how it has developed throughout the centuries, including the important development of common law, the concept of stare decisis and a discussion of American Law as living law. This discussion is followed by a description of categories of law, often overlapping, found in the U.S. legal system. Next is a discussion of the components of the legal system and the officers of the court. The chapter concludes with an explanation of the adversarial nature of the legal system, a comparison of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, and a look at the emerging influence of U.S. law beyond our borders.

Theories about and the Purpose of the Legal System
Futurist Joel Barker defines a paradigm as a boundary or parameter that outlines a rule and is based on experience. Sociologist Max Weber contends that the primary purpose of law is to regulate human interactions—to support social function. Combining these two views leads to the concept that a society’s legal paradigm defines the...
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